June 30, 2011 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Lions & tigers & birds, oh my!

Tippi Hedren, seen here in a 1963 publicity still for ‘The Birds,’ is in Washington this weekend to collect an award for her activism for displaced Vietnamese-Americans. (Photo courtesy of Universal/MCA)

There’s an ironic bit of life imitating art — though it would take years to come to fruition — anticipated in “Marnie.”

In an early scene of the Alfred Hitchcock classic that stars Tippi Hedren as a frigid kleptomaniac scared of red and storms, Marnie (Hedren) asks Mark (Sean Connery) about a photo in his office of a large cat. It’s Sophie, a jaguarundi whom he trained to trust him.

“Is that all?,” Marnie asks.

“Well that’s a great deal — for a jaguarundi,” Mark says.

Even Hedren had no idea at the time the degree to which lions, tigers and other large cats would dominate her life in the coming years. For those who know her only as the last of the Hitchcock blondes or Melanie Griffith’s mother, Hedren is full of surprises.

After Hitchcock — more on him in a bit — Hedren made two movies in Africa in the late ‘60s, “Satan’s Harvest” and “Mr. Kingstreet’s War.” Neither are widely remembered today to the degree that the two she made with Hitchcock (“The Birds” and “Marnie”) are, but “Harvest,” especially, started a chain of events that eventually led to her self-financing a movie (“Roar”) with her then-husband, the late Noel Marshall.

It incited in Hedren a fierce passion for wild cats in captivity in the U.S. Though initially naïve about the dangers of keeping lions in the house — photos in her memoirs show teen daughter Melanie in bed with their first lion, the monstrously large Neil — Hedren has become a safety advocate. After decades of providing refuge for large cats impulsive animal lovers buy then quickly become overwhelmed (or in some cases even killed) by, Hedren is lobbying for a “Federal Ban on Breeding Exotic Cats for Personal Possession Act,” a tougher law than the 2003 “Captive Wildlife Safety Act,” which Hedren co-authored and Congress passed unanimously. Circuses, like Ringling Bros., oppose it.

But that’s not all — Hedren is in Washington this weekend to accept the Vietnamese-American Patron Saint Award from the Boat People SOS, a Falls Church-based organization for Vietnamese-Americans. Turns out — who knew? — in all her free time in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Hedren volunteered widely with natural disaster relief organizations after two trips (in ’66 and ’68) to Vietnam.

In 1975, she volunteered at the “Hope Village” facility near Sacramento, which Food for the Hungry had established to aid in the integration of refugees. Hedren became acquainted with a group of Vietnamese women who’d sought refuge in California. They were fascinated by her nails, so Hedren had her manicurist train them and in the coming years a boom in Vietnamise-owned U.S. nail shops ensued. They’ve never forgotten that Hedren got the ball rolling.

“Through her volunteer work, which helped resettle many Vietnamese refugees arriving in America at the end of the Vietnam war, Tippi Hedren may not realize how many lives she has touched and changed,” says Trang-Khanh Tran, director of field operations for the BPSOS. “She has contributed tremendously to the survival and growth of the Vietnamese-American community. Her helping the refugee families set up nail salons blazed the trail for tens of thousands more.” (Tickets may still be available for the BPSOS award dinner, part of its 30-year anniversary gala Saturday at the Capital Hilton in Washington. Visit vasummit2011.org for details.)

Hedren — perhaps more than the other Hitchcock blondes — has also managed to exude a paradoxically strong queer appeal, memorably immortalized by lesbian cultural scholar Camille Paglia in a 1998 essay.

Paglia, hearing Hedren was being honored, leapt at the chance to weigh in.

“I was shocked that in all the scholarly writing on Hitchcock’s movies, there wasn’t one positive thing about Tippi,” she says. “They say she’s wooden, she’s this, she’s that, he wanted Grace Kelly … there was no appreciation for how brilliant she is in (“The Birds”). Gays have always had a special affection for the dismissed. For years, gay men were the only ones who took Carmen Miranda … seriously. Now she’s been rediscovered. Tippi had this tremendous sense of artifice of planning her move for the camera. Gay men, not lesbians, but gay men, have that too, that sense of persona, of composing the self. Tippi is so sophisticated, but also warm. … You just cannot teach what she has.”

Hedren says she became aware of the idolization as soon as “The Birds” became a hit. She knew early on her character, Melanie, with her trademark torn green suit, bloodied face and disheveled hair, had become a popular Halloween costume, especially for gay men in drag. She says she’s always been pleasantly amused by it.

“As soon as it started, people were doing this,” she says. “I think it’s wonderful.”

Now 81, Hedren indulges dozens of questions about all facets of her life during a nearly hour-long phone interview from her home on the Shambala Preserve on the edge of the Mojave Desert in Acton, Calif., about 40 miles outside Los Angeles.

She’s in great health, she says. The only thing that dogs her are “chronic” headaches. Not migraines, but trying nonetheless. She’s the same size she was when Hitchcock signed her in 1961. She modeled one of the Edith Head gowns Hitchcock ordered for her about 10 years ago for People magazine.

“I just like being thin,” she says. “I don’t overeat. I never really had to diet. If I have to lie down on the bed to zip up my jeans, I don’t eat that day. That’s my diet.”

Though her work for Hitchcock is by far her most well remembered, Hedren has continued acting nearly all along. Most recently she’s been on TV as Lily on USA’s “The 4400,” Doris on “Fashion House” and had a 2008 guest spot on “CSI.” “Cousin Sarah,” a thriller with Linda Blair, is slated for a Halloween release. She’s also involved in an upcoming film with Billy Bob Thornton.

She says her film work has been out of necessity. She doesn’t draw a salary for her work at Shambala and says she wouldn’t dream of taking any donated money away from care for Preserve’s current crop of about 60 rescued lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats and more. Two of its latest inhabitants are tigers Michael Jackson formerly had at Neverland, Thriller and Sabu. Keeping Shambala open, Hedren says, costs about $75,000 per month and securing money has become increasingly hard.

“People ask me all the time how I do it and I don’t’ know, I just do,” Hedren says. “We’re just sort of living by the skin of our pants. It’s really, really difficult.” (shambala.org)

Hitchcock saw Hedren, a successful model, on a “Today” show commercial for a diet drink called Sego in the fall of 1961, the year after he made “Psycho.” At the height of his popularity, the director had his agents at MCA track her down and within weeks had signed her to a seven year exclusive contract. This being the “Mad Men” era and Hitchcock being one of the most famous directors in Hollywood, things eventually soured between the two as he became more controlling. After “Marnie” he sabatoged her career by keeping her under contract but refusing to give her work or loan her out. She finally got out with a supporting role in Charlie Chaplin’s last film, “A Countess from Hong Kong” (1967) with Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.

Hedren, however, has forgiven, if not exactly forgotten. She’s a regular at Hitchcock tributes and eagerly participates in festivals at which “The Birds” is shown. Even during Hitchcock’s lifetime, she paid tribute to him at a star-studded tribute the American Film Institute threw in 1979, the year before he died. Yes, he was responsible for her acting career and starred her in two of his most well-remembered films, but after declining his advances, he worked just as hard to keep her down.

“Early on I just made peace with it and that’s what I literally had to do,” she says. “I think bitterness and hatred and negative feelings can really destroy your life. There was still too much for me to do. I never saw that kind of reaction in my parents and they instilled a really, really good background in me.”

For all the mythic iconography of the archetypical “Hitchcock blonde” over the decades, Hedren only had limited interaction with others in his stable. They never appeared, of course, in any one film. Hedren never met Grace Kelly, who was already married and living as Princess Grace by the time Hedren started making movies. Before Janet Leigh (Marion in “Psycho”) died in 2004, she and Hedren had been photographed together at various Hitchcock events.

Did they get to know each other?

“A little,” Hedren says. “I mean we didn’t become BFFs or anything.”

And what about Kim Novak’s (Madeline in “Vertigo”) noticeable absence at such gatherings? Hedren says Novak always declines.

“She doesn’t come to anything,” Hedren says. “It’s not that she’s not invited. She just never wants to do it.”

Tippi Hedren with two of her tigers, Mona and Zoe, at Shambala near California’s Soledad Canyon. (Photo by Bill Dow; courtesy of Miss Hedren)

For all the unpleasant Hitchcock memories — shooting the final attack scene was notoriously arduous and took, like the shower scene in “Psycho,” a full week to shoot — Hedren has fond memories. Before her scene in which she brings tea to a distressed Jessica Tandy in “The Birds,” Hitchcock told her to play it “kind of bitchy,” Hedren says. At Tandy’s request after watching the dailies, Hitchcock re-shot it so Hedren could play it more compassionately.

“I loved Jessica Tandy,” Hedren says. “All the actors were really wonderful to me on that, absolutely wonderful.”

Hedren says she’d long been a Hitchcock fan and “Spellbound,” “Rebecca” and “The Trouble With Harry” are her favorites aside from her two.

She remembers a story meeting in which the famously ambiguous “Birds” ending was discussed. Her favorite proposal was shots of famous monuments around the world, all covered in birds. Hitchcock historians have said this was too expensive to pull off.

“I think he just liked to leave people wondering what happened to them as they drove off,” Hedren says.

Had things not deteriorated on “Marnie,” Hedren says “Mary Rose,” a ghost story about a woman who disappears for 30 years and comes back with no memory of being gone, would have been their next collaboration.

“He gave me the play to read,” Hedren recalls. “Oh, I loved it. My daughter owned it for awhile. What’s difficult was how do you show a woman as a ghost? How do you do that visually? That became the reason it wasn’t done with or without me. Now, of course, they could do it very easily.”

Some of the thorny Hitchcock/Hedren legend has gotten misconstrued, the actress says. An oft-told story that the director sent Hedren’s daughter Melanie, then a child, a doll of her mother in a coffin, has been wildly exaggerated. Yes, there was a doll and yes, it was sent in a pine box, but it was merely a container in which to ship it. A makeup man on “Marnie” had made the doll and Hedren says she’s sure Hitch had no intent of upsetting the child.

“I’m not sure whatever happened to that doll,” Hedren says.

Though she no longer interacts personally with lions and tigers, she did for years. Both she and Melanie were injured making “Roar” and she admits “our thinking was very different then.”

“There isn’t one good thing about owning an animal like this,” Hedren says. “It’s hideously expensive and hideously dangerous. They’re apex predators at the top of the food chain. Having them around is like having a loaded gun on the coffee table. Would anybody do that? Not in their right mind.”

Hedren says she’s never surprised when she hears of attacks. Even entertainers with long relationships with big cats, like gay former Las Vegas headliner Roy Horn (Sigfried & Roy).

“I can’t tell you how many lions and tigers I bottle raised, they slept with me, they can be as caring and loving as a dog so you come to trust the dog, but you try that with a lion or a tiger and they’ll turn on you in a split second. They just have that instinct and it will always be there.”

Famously discarded by Hitchcock, Hedren, in some ways, has had the last laugh. This weekend’s BPSOS award is just the latest of several recent accolades. She was honored by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in May, at a tribute to leading ladies at the Smithsonian and, also this weekend, was slated to receive the Women Together Award from the United Nations.

Of the BPSOS award, Hedren says she’s deeply honored.

“This is something that I am so surprised about,” she says. “Not just the award, but so surprised at this enormous enterprise that has happened. I just wanted to help 20 women I loved very much. It just became so much more than that.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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